President Obama’s decision to visit the Middle East this spring has focused new attention on what he might say about Israeli-Palestinian peace in next Tuesday’s State of the Union Address.
Obama has a lot of ground to cover in his speech and a lot of issues to address, both domestic and foreign. So no one is expecting more than a sentence or two to be devoted to Israeli-Palestinian peace. Still, it’s an important opportunity for the President to deliver a plain and unambiguous declaration of intent—that he intends to make this a priority of his second term and that he will stick with it, despite the difficulties, until the job is done.
If I were drafting this part of the address, I would say something like this: “Peace between Israelis and Palestinians can and should be achieved on the basis of a two-state solution with both peoples peacefully side by side in sovereign independent states. My upcoming trip to Jerusalem and Ramallah will be an opportunity build consensus around the proposition that the time to solve this conflict is now. I believe an agreement can be reached and I will work tirelessly with the leaders of both nations throughout my second term to bring that about. It is a historic responsibility we each share and I believe we can and will meet the test.”
A look back at Obama’s previous four State of the Union addresses shows that Arab-Israeli peace never really made it as a priority. In 2009, he devoted one sentence to the issue, saying: “To seek progress toward a secure and lasting peace between Israel and her neighbors, we have appointed an envoy to sustain our effort.”
That envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell, lasted just over two years in the job before quitting. And since then, peace efforts have been deadlocked while the situation on the ground has deteriorated. Last month’s Israeli election, which moved the country somewhat back toward the political center, was a rare bright spot.
Israeli settlements have continued to grow and new ones have been established or announced, threatening the viability of a future Palestinian state on the West Bank.
Meanwhile, Hamas has maintained its control over Gaza and has fired thousands of rockets at Israeli civilians while continuing to increase its military capabilities. Other even more extreme groups have established themselves in Gaza and neighboring Sinai. Israel has engaged in two major and several lesser military operations to quell the fire.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his moderate allies have lost popularity, partly because of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s constant moves to belittle and marginalize them. An economic boom in the West Bank appears to have petered out, threatening to further destabilize the region.
Netanyahu and Abbas have conducted almost no meaningful negotiations and have no trust in one another. Meanwhile, ordinary people on both sides have lost faith that peace can come in their lifetimes.
In his 2010 and 2011 State of the Union addresses, Obama said not a single word on the issue. Last year, when he was already positioning himself for re-election and trying to head off expected Republican criticism questioning his commitment to Israel, Obama offered this: “Our ironclad commitment—and I mean ironclad—to Israel’s security has meant the closest military cooperation between our two countries in history.” There was nothing at all about peace with the Palestinians.
Given the apparently unpromising situation on the ground, why should Obama get involved? One reason is that if he does nothing, the door on a two-state solution may close forever—a failure that would become part of Obama’s legacy. But a more compelling reason is that ending this conflict is clearly a U.S. national security interest. Israelis and Palestinians would benefit the most, but we too would benefit enormously from peace and stability at the heart of an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable region.